Wednesday, March 25, 2009


The year 1682 was an important one for two adventurous Europeans – French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and William Penn, an English Quaker.

La Salle had set out from Canada in 1689, searching for a great river described by the Indians. In 1682-1682, he traveled down the full length of the Mississippi. When he reached the Gulf of Mexico in April, 1682, he claimed all the land that the Mississippi flowed through for France. La Salle named the vast territory Louisiana, in honor of his king, Louis XIV.

As a Quaker, William Penn was persecuted and jailed in England for his religious beliefs. In 1681, he received a grant of land in America from the English king in settlement of a debt owed to his father. Penn immediately sent agents to the New World to begin building a settlement. The next year, he went to America himself and issued the colony’s frame of government. Penn’s guarantee of religious freedom and his easy terms for buying land attracted many settlers to his colony – “Penn’s Woods,” or Pennsylvania.

Also in 1682 – One of America’s first best-sellers was published in 1682. The Sovereignty and Goodness of God was Mary Rowlandson’s account of her capture by Wampanoag Indians in Massachusetts in 1676.

The painting with this post is titled LaSalle at the Mouth of the Mississippi. The artist is George Catlin. It was painted sometime in the 1840s.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Herman Melville

A whaling ship scours the seas for a mysterious white whale. Its Captain Ahab is obsessed with hunting the creature down. At last, Ahab himself raises the cry, “There she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!” Those words bring readers to the gripping climax of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or The Whale , one of the greatest American novels.

Melville knew the sea well. As a young man, he sailed on a whaling ship to the South Pacific, determined to “sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts.,” His first books, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and Omoo, were successful. Typee is based on Melville’s real experiences with cannibals on an island in the South Pacific. But when Moby-Dick was published in 1851, it sold poorly and received bad reviews. Melville continued to write, publishing several novels and many short stories. But he had to work as a customs inspector in New York City to earn a living.

Moby-Dick is unlike any other novel. It is an exciting adventure tale, the story of Ahab’s quest for the white whale. But it also offers long passages about whales and the whaling industry. On a deeper level, the book explores such themes as the conflicts between man and nature and between good and evil.

The novel’s greatness was not widely recognized until many years after Melville’s death.

Monday, March 9, 2009


On August 3, 1492, three small ships – the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria – set sail from Palos, Spain. Christopher Columbus, the daring captain of the expedition, was convinced that he could reach Asia by sailing westward across the Atlantic. Up to that time, the only way for European traders to reach Asia was by ship to the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and then by caravan across treacherous deserts and mountains. Columbus hoped to find an easier route to Asia and to the jewels, silks, and spices that Europeans valued so highly.

As Columbus’ ships sailed day after day across the choppy ocean, his men grew discontented and fearful. But on October 12th, they sighted land. Columbus went ashore on a small island and claimed it for Queen Isabella of Spain, who had financed his voyage. He named the island San Salvador, or Holy Savior. He believed the island was one of the Indies off the coast of Asia, so he called the natives Indians.

In reality, Columbus had landed in the Caribbean Sea, in the group of islands now known as the Bahamas. A huge continent, now called North America, was just 50 miles to the northwest. Instead of finding a sea route to Asia, Columbus had discovered the New World.

Christopher Columbus made three more trips to the New World before his death in 1506, but he died believing that he had discovered an unknown region of Asia.

Use this link to find logs, letters, and journals written by Christopher Columbus.

For an extensive listing of Christopher Columbus images check this Library of Congress page.

Monday, March 2, 2009


From high in the rigging of a tall-masted ship, a lookout cries, “Thar she blows!” The crew springs into action. Quickly they lower their rowboats and set out in pursuit of a nearby whale.

Whaling was a major industry in the first half of the nineteenth century. From ports such as Nantucket and New Bedford in Massachusetts, whaling ships sailed on voyages that lasted for years and took them around the world.

Lookouts on the ships kept watch for whales coming to the surface to breathe. When a whale was spotted, the whalers chased and harpooned it. Then they rowed away to avoid being overturned by their wounded prey.

Sometimes a harpooned whale took a boat on a “Nantucket sleigh ride,” pulling it for hours across the ocean. When the whale finally tired, it was killed with lances. Then the whalers lashed it to the whaling ship and cut it up.

Blubber, or fat, was boiled down to make whale oil, which was sold as fuel for lamps. Corset stays were made from baleen (thin plates of bone from the mouths of right whales). Sperm whales yielded oil used to lubricate fine instruments and waxy ambergris, used in perfume.

At the industry’s peak, there were more than 700 American whaling ships killing some 10,000 whales a year. But whaling declined after 1850 as petroleum replaced whale oil as fuel.

Modern whalers, using harpoon guns and helicopters, brought some species close to extinction.

Here is an article regarding whaling in days gone by.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum site is great place to explore the subject a bit more.